Paul Woodward is the primary school head teacher that hit the headlines recently for speaking out against parents who allow their children to sign up to Facebook despite being underage. He estimates that at least 60% of the 270-plus children at his school in the Forest of Dean have access to social networking sites. He has even threatened parents that he will report them to social services.
Woodward, a branch secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, is concerned that youngsters who use the sites risk being exposed to pornography and online grooming. Woodward argues that Internet companies and the Government should do more to protect impressionable children.
It is a dilemma for parents. Social media is inescapable in today's society and parents feel pressured in to letting their children sign up to sites, so much so, that according to the latest research by EU Kids Online, 43% of 9-12 year olds in the UK are actively using Facebook, despite the site imposing an age limit of 13 and above.
Nobody can deny that Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are a marvellous addition to our society but they are not designed with children in mind. Woodward's approach is half right; children should not be on certain social networks like Facebook but equally they should not be shut off from social media altogether.
So what can parents do? Many adopt the approach of banning social media from their children until they are old enough. That approach is naïve and counterproductive to a child's development. Like it or not, the ways that people interact and make friends are changing. For instance, a study in 2009 found that over 30% of new couples in America met online. Equally as mentioned over the last decade social media has become central to our lives and is accessible 24/7 in today's world, it is here to stay.
All of this means we cannot simply put cotton wool in our children's ears and hope that by the age of 13 they will suddenly become savvy social networkers. They need to be educated, not merely told. They need to be gradually introduced to social networks and trained on how to use them safely.
There are social networks out there created just for children and this is the approach we are trying to cultivate with Pora Ora, a 3D online virtual educational game aimed at 5-12 year-olds. Parents need to be involved to be constantly aware of their children's actions and have the power to gradually adjust their security settings over time. Parents also need to educate their children on the importance of internet safety and enforce rules to be followed.
However the crucial point is that simply learning about internet safety is not enough, children need to practise it. With the right nurturing, guidance and practice, children can then have the best possible preparation when the time comes to make the transition into more grown up social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.